Healthcare Mobilized: Mobile Meets Medicine

Posted by – November 20, 2013

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Healthcare.  In the United States, there is no more polarizing topic today.  With the debate featuring prominently in the government shut down, it’s easy to believe that the state of healthcare has never been worse in the nation.  But as usual, beyond fear mongering headlines, positive forces are at work. 

Big (and small) pharma players are developing life changing drugs.  Robots can perform surgery at the same level as world class surgeons.  Diseases that have killed untold millions face eradication.  And perhaps most interestingly, longtime technology players are wading into the medical field.  And much of this medical technology field is enabled by today’s mobile devices.   

Today, we’ll profile some of the exciting technologies and highlight those likely to benefit from their continued adoption. –The Flaneur 

Healthcare Mobilized: Mobile Meets Medicine

United States per capita healthcare spending is the highest in the world – by a wide margin.  And all of that spending doesn’t promote improved patient outcomes either.  At times over the past decade, life expectancy has actually declined (among the only developed nations in the world demonstrating that trend) and other nations enjoy healthier existences.

us health spending compared to oecd

If comparison to peers doesn’t do it for you, consider that in 1960, national health expenditures accounted for 5.2% of GDP.  By 2010, that figure had more than tripled to 17.9%.

Expenditures and as Percent of GDP

Why this is confounds businessmen, politicians, medical professionals, and patients alike.  Likely, there is no single explanation.  Education costs have risen rapidly, meaning from a purely economic standpoint, doctors today require greater salaries to justify the investment in their education.  Malpractice costs have risen, which means clinics charge patients more to cover higher insurance premiums.

As we’ve profiled before, the nation faces an obesity epidemic.  Large practices have huge shareholder bases, which generally means profits come first and foremost.  An expansive piece from Time earlier this year (read here) suggests outrageous pricing schemes are to blame (check out an in-depth infographic here).  The list goes on.

But for all the headwinds, major medical advances and breakthroughs continue.  HIV’s days may be numbered.  Robots perform surgery with micro precision.  Nanotechnology, formerly a darling buzz word of the tech world, promises great potential in nanomedicine.  Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) latest venture, Calico, has a lofty goal of solving death.  Let that sink in for a second and then read it again.  Solve death.

This may be the seminal moment for the marriage of tech and medicine.  Maybe while the politicians are arguing from their scripts, savvy entrepreneurs, the best and brightest medical professionals, and the rapid advances of technology will meet to tackle head on the nation’s healthcare dilemma, at least in part.  But “in part” for a multi-trillion dollar industry, spells enormous opportunity.  For all the advances we’ve made, there may never have been a better time to be in medicine than right now.

And there’s reason for positivity.  It may ultimately be remembered as just a blip on the radar (ie, it’s too soon to make much of it), but for the first time in nearly 4 decades, the nation’s healthcare costs registered a decline.

The Landscape

Already today, there are myriad mobile technologies in use.  Together, these are eliminating unnecessary visits to the doctor, providing more robust patient data for monitoring and analysis, and lowering procedural costs.

For example, using an attachment that turns her iPhone into an otoscope, a mother can snap a picture of her sick baby’s inner ear.  That image can be transmitted to the doctor who can quickly surmise whether there is an infection.  If needed, the prescription is written and can be filled by the local pharmacy.  Doctor visit avoided.  Over time, all such transmissions are recorded enabling the doc to pinpoint any troubling trends.  And early reports suggest the technology is equivalent if not better than the conventional.

This is just one example.  Patients with cardiovascular issues can now self-administer EKGs that are uploaded daily or more frequently for their physician to review.  An emergency room visit may be recommended for an acute issue, while important longer term trends are also monitored.

Consider, too, the budding wearables market – new devices such as Google Glass which meld the digital and physical worlds will enable surgeons to pinpoint and avoid potential trouble areas during a procedure.  The possibilities here are intriguing.

As patients buy into the idea of mobile technology as medicine, medical professionals will be equipped with more information than ever before.  It’s no great leap then to envision a future where medical professionals will have both a near real-time holistic view of patient health and the longer-term trend data that may help earlier identify disease and more.

Of course, this is dependent on multiple parties.  Insurers must be willing to foot the bill; patients and doctors alike must be willing to adopt it; and the FDA and other regulatory bodies must approve it.  Certainly, that time has not yet fully arrived.  But make no mistake about it, mobile technology will play a role in the future of medicine.

Possible Investment Opportunities

The continued adoption of mobile healthcare technologies will drive incremental smart device sales. That’s a boon for device manufacturers.  But as we’ve stated before in our mobile series, tastes are fickle.  What’s in today, may well be out of favor in a few quarters’ time.

Other major tech companies like Google may serve as leading indicators as to what technologies will prevail.  Or with all its technological and financial muscle, Google may well shape the market.  But as it stands today, healthcare is just one small piece of what Google does.  And that’s the case with many of publicly-traded players in this space. Today, little exists in the way of a pure play investment in mobile healthcare.

This year, IBM’s Five in Five series, which spotlights five technologies ripe for advancement, was dedicated entirely to sensors. Many of these are healthcare focused.  This is one under-the-radar play.  But take a look at some of the leading companies: many of these are startups or small, private companies.  Not exactly accessible for much of the investing public.  But keep these names in mind.  Watch where they go: some may ultimately go public, others may be acquired by a large public company to drive a mobile health growth opportunity, others may simply signal a budding technology soon to be mimicked by a larger competitor.

Another consideration is “infrastructure.”  Consider that all of these sensors and all of these devices must be able to communicate with medical systems.  And they must do so reliably and securely.  Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), via its mobile-healthcare focused Life division, is one company tackling this challenge.  The company’s 2net Platform links wireless health solutions to healthcare provider databases.   The platform has already been recognized by the FDA as a Class I Medical Device Data System, so meets stringent regulatory standards.  The cloud-based system may grow to become a significant piece of Qualcomm’s business.

Whatever you consider, keep in mind that landmark decisions from the FDA, major insurers, and other parties have the potential to alter the mobile healthcare landscape.  Look out for these.  They have the potential transform businesses – for the better or the worse – overnight.

Recommended Reading: If you’re interested in the role of technology in personal health, may we recommend Biopunk: Solving Biotech’s Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages, a fascinating look at technology and our evolving biology. 

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